Deep & Wide - Week Two: "Fearless Conversations"
This week we are continuing the sermon series that we started last week--a series that is going to take us all the way through the month of May. The series is entitled, Deep & Wide.
We need to be the kind of church that is both deep and wide. We want to be deep in our faith, and our love of Scripture, but we also want to have a wide embrace, welcoming everyone to journey with us.
Last week we talked about how people have stopped coming to church. The purpose of this series is to first uncover why people have stopped coming to church and then to discover what we can do to turn those negatives into positives... so we can work toward being that deep and wide congregation we need to be.
Last week we discovered that the biggest reason people have stopped coming to church is because they feel judged. We also learned that the way we can overcome those feelings of judgement is when we practice Radical Hospitality.
This week we are going to find out what the second biggest reason why people say they don't go to church. In poll after poll, people indicate that one of the main reasons why they don't go to church is because they feel like they are being lectured when they go. The sermons they hear are lifeless, irrelevant and often angry. They leave feeling worse than when they came.
Listen, unchurched people can tell the difference between feeling convicted about something they need to change, and just being lectured.
And this doesn't just stop at the sermons on Sunday morning. The same complaints get extended to Sunday school classes, Bible studies, small groups--you name it. The general impression by unchurched people is that there is nothing really being offered at church that will help them with the very real problems they are facing, the questions they have, the doubts that they suffer...
This begs the question, is only giving people information working? Is being a follower of Jesus something that is taught--or is it something that is caught? Is it just about information, or is about transformation--through conversation?
When I was fifteen, I stopped believing in God--at least in the way I had been taught to believe in God up until that point. I got tired of a God who was always angry with me. I felt like the things I was struggling with--my doubts, my fears, the real temptations and anxieties I was experiencing--were all but ignored by my church, my pastors and my youth leaders.
And when I expressed these struggles, I was essentially told to 'get right with God.' And then given tons of scripture verses that were supposed to help me understand why I shouldn't feel the way I felt.
The solution was to give me information. But what I wanted more than anything was conversation.
So I went to summer camp when I was fifteen. The summer camps that my fundamentalist church youth group went to were dominated by lots of church services, preaching about sex, drugs and rock and roll and the girls all had to wear koolats, They had this big altar call at the end of the week after the preacher spent about an hour yelling at us about how we need to get our hearts right with God. The idea was for you to take a stick and then throw it in the fire to show you were right with God.
I decided that the God they were talking about wasn't very cool at all. And I didn't really want to be right with that God because that God was a killjoy. I didn't think believing in the God they wanted me to believe in was going to make my life better. It definitely wasn't making it happier.
So I refused to throw my stick in the fire.
I stood there for an hour. Everyone threw their stick in the fire--like four hundred people. My cabin counselor, youth director and even the preacher came up to me, put their arm on my shoulder and tried to convince me that the best thing for me to do was to put my stick in the fire. I told them I didn't think I needed to, and could I just go. They told me that I could go when I put my stick in the fire. So I stood there. Finally, I realized that the whole thing was more about them than me, and I just took the stick and tossed it in the fire so I could go to bed.
But I was done. Done with church. And done with God. So began a journey that eventually took me out of the church, and then to agnosticism.
What I did was what a lot of people who give up on church do--they decide that because they are just getting lectured at church... church (and religion) aren't really meaningful to them any more and because they equated church and religion with God they walk away from all of them.
So what do we do about this? Do we do away with sermons altogether? Is that the solution?
Sermons are important--at least well-planned, well-executed, meaningful, engaging and transformative sermons. Jesus preached sermons, after all. So did Peter and Paul. The book of acts is filled with sermons and references to people preaching them. Once Paul preached for like ten hours--all evening and all night. A kid fell asleep in the middle of the sermon and fell out of a window to his death. Paul went out, raised the kid from the dead, and then went back to preaching. I bet people listened more closely to him after that, though, right?
So where did we go wrong?
I think I have an idea. Before Jesus arrived the way that people worshipped the One God was all about location. In other words, you went to the Temple to encounter God, worship God, be forgiven by God, offer to God. The Temple Model was all about holy spaces, cared for and facilitated by holy people who allowed you to engage in holy stuff according to an extensive list of rules and barriers.
Jesus turned that on its head. In fact in one of the Gospel accounts, when Jesus dies on the cross there is an earthquake and the veil that kept the Holy of Holies (the holy place that the holy people, the priests, believed where God visited God's people) in the Temple away from everyone was torn in two. There was no need for a Temple, so to speak, at least not in the old way of thinking about it.
So even though Jesus preached sermons, he had many more conversations with people where he addressed their need, reached into their lives, restored them, helped transform them... Can you think of any of these moments off the top of your head? Let's share a few.
Shout out some of those conversations...
It's time for us to follow in Jesus example, don't you think?
Jesus wasn't afraid to have tough conversations with people, and to receive their doubts and questions. In John 3:1-17 we have a situation where Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader who was trying to figure things out.
Nicodemus doesn't understand completely how to let go of his old Temple Model way of thinking about God. So Jesus gives him a new thing to consider: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved."
I know it's hard to hear this for some of us... but Christians have turned John 3:16 into a threat. Instead of a proclamation of Good News, they've made it into an if/than statement. "If you don't believe like us/than you will burn in hell." Period. No discussion. No room for doubts. No questions. And then they completely leave off John 3:17 in the process.
No wonder that the 80 percent of Americans who don't really attend church--don't want to attend church. We are offering them one-sided lectures on Sunday mornings and they fully realize that this means we could care less about what they are feeling wondering, wishing, hoping... and maybe even the things that are killing them inside.
Sometimes there are people who are struggling with things that are so far beyond our understanding that it's hard for us to even imagining what it would be like to be them.
In the end, what will reach out to people who are turning away from God, who are fleeing the church because they feel like they can never measure up is simply our presence and our willingness to engage them in conversation.
I want you to take the pieces of paper that we've provided for you today that say "Fearless Conversations" on them. Write down your answers to the following question on that paper:
WHAT TOUGH TOPICS WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE MORE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT AT CHURCH?
Every Sunday it is my heart's desire to share with you a sermon that is authentic, open, engaging and that has meaning in your every day life.... And I want it to be a conversation, which is why I do my daily devotions, which is why I love it when people engage the sermon beyond Sunday... when people are talking about it in their small group or with friends...
But it's going to take all of us together to create an even more open environment to have fearless conversations, and to be a safe place for those conversations to happen.
I wonder if maybe we’ve lost the value of talking, and more importantly, listening. If we did that more often, I’m sure we’d all learn more.
When you're having fearless conversations with your sisters and brothers at church, try to resist the urge to give the “right” answer or set others straight. If you disagree with someone, keep loving that person anyway.
And hold the disagreements you might have in tension with that love focusing on what you have in common more than what divides you.
We need to be a space for grace, a space where fearless conversations can happen, and where those who have given up on church will know that their questions, doubts and thoughts are welcome.
Bring up your cards...